Wednesday, May 05, 2010

"The Lizard King" Bryan Christy

“The Lizard King” is just one of those books. It’s such a thrill to read, such a joy-ride but, at the same time, so hard to describe, it leaves you gushing like a barely coherent idiot. I actually said to my husband “you have to read this”. I do that maybe twice a year. Almost always it’s a fiction or crime book.

Well, “difficult to describe” is not exactly the truth, the subtitle, after all, pretty much says it all: “The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers”. What it doesn’t say is how apt Bryan Christy is as a writer, somehow straddling the news reporting and true-crime genres in order to provide something that has the excitement of under-cover journalism, provides the thrill of a mystery novel and elicits the compulsive reading of the best fiction.

Some years ago, I actually caught a few minutes of the BBC documentary “Animal Smugglers” Christy mentions. I then met for the first time, some of the protagonists of this book. I was fascinated to say the least, about exotic animal smuggling. Reptile contraband is even more enthralling to me because, while I can understand the fascination of owning an endangered parrot, for instance, I’ll be damned if I can understand why people go to the lengths they do to get a snake or lizard.

This of course, tells of nothing except of my own naïveté, for, as Christy demonstrates the answer is money. It will come as no surprise to the more cynical to find out that most high-end smugglers don’t particularly like the animals they smuggle and might as well (and often do) dabble in gun and drug running.

Christy’s tale is a sort of octopus whose head is represented by the Soprano-like smuggling family, the Von Nostrand’s. Family members are presented with a deft brush, painting their childhood, family relations, first steps in the business (most criminal characters in the book seem to have begun their careers remarkably early). The tentacles are manifold, from business competitors, to the various branches of law enforcement involved in years of investigation, all rendered in a truthful yet sympathetic manner.

Then there is Chip Bepler, a special agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Look at his name. It seems fictional, so obviously the name of a good-guy, a stand-up guy, the kind of cop that never abuses his power, respects his opponents, is polite in the middle of a police raid – which is, it turns out, exactly the kind of guy, Christy meets behind the name. The perfect antithesis for the Van Nostrand’s (particularly Jr’s) brash, irate, over-the-top personalities.

Actually, the problem with reviewing “The Lizard King” is the same as with a crime novel: you cannot give too much away, without stealing the next reader’s pleasure. And not only do I not want to give anything away plot-wise, I also don’t want to delve too much into the more journalistic end of the book – the facts on reptile smuggling – which will also surprise any reader.

Suffice it to say that you will get an extremely satisfying climax and not one, but two, great conclusions: one takes place in the court-room, the other in a cemetery. And that’s too much said, already. Anyway, the ending, is hardly the best reason for reading “The Lizard King”. It’s everything leading up to it.

Somewhere between Eric Hansen’s “Orchid Fever” and Grisham’s “The Pelican Brief” stands this absolutely feverish, compulsive, dynamite stick of a book. I really cannot recommend it highly enough.

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